Maltese Identity in Australia - What Future?

Author: Dr. Barry York

Hopes: fragile and realistic

If it is hoped that Maltese culture and identity of the type brought to Australia in the 1950s and 1960s will be preserved by the second and third generations, then I must say that I regard the hope as a fragile hope. Second and third generation Maltese-Australians grow up in Australia and are inevitably influenced by a range of pressures outside of the home and outside of their parents' expectations or desires. They will, and have, consciously rejected aspects of their parents' and grandparents' attitudes but they have, or will eventually, appreciate others. In my opinion, this is the healthiest response to one's ethnic heritage because it makes way for the future and does not imprison new generations in the past.

In speaking of Maltese identity and culture, I think of five main components. These are: language, religion, family, love for (or pride in) Malta, and Maltese history.

What do these things mean for the second and third generation in Australia? If the hope is that the second and third generations will embrace them as their parents and grandparents did then, again, it is a very fragile hope for the simple reason that each aspect has its meaning in Maltese society, Maltese history, not in the Australian social reality that will form the outlook and ways of the children of the Malta-born parents.

Taking those five salient features one at a time, it might be constructive to consider how the second and third generations respond to each and, if necessary (and if desirable), what can be done to make them more attractive.

(i) Language: Use versus Relevance, the Future versus the Heart

As far as language is concerned, the 1986 Census found that 59,506 persons spoke Maltese at home. This figure does not suggest a high language inheritance because there were 110,237 persons of Maltese ancestry. And, as explained earlier, 51,905 were born in Malta and, presumably, in most cases, speak Maltese at home.

One of the obstacles that has to be confronted, in my opinion, is the reality that Maltese is not a useful language to the Australian-born. It is an individually-relevant language, for sure, but it is not useful in the sense that the Asian languages currently being taught in our schools are useful. Is it really surprising that young people with a concern for their futures in these difficult economic times might choose an Asian language that will help them obtain a secure and well-paid job instead of a language that is closer to their hearts? Or, forgetting Asia, that young Maltese-Australians might prefer to learn French or Spanish - languages that open doors to so many countries around the world.

(ii) Religion

My impression is that the status of religion has changed somewhat in Malta itself, especially among the younger people there. My impression is that religion is not strong among the second and third generation in Australia. This may worry parents and grandparents but I suspect it is an irreversible trend. The second and third generation grow up in an Australian society in which there are many religions, big and small, to chose from. Personally, I would want it no other way. Choice is a foundation of democracy and liberty. Professor Jones' analysis of Census data indicates that the Maltese Catholic religious affiliation declines over the generations. For example, in 1986, 91.4% of the Maltese 'first generation' (ie, the migrants) were Catholic, 0.7% were Anglican and 1.8% Non-Theist. By the second generation, we find 87.1% Catholic, 1.8% Anglican and 3.2% Non-Theist while 71.7% of the third generation are Catholic, 8.8% Anglican and 7.3% Non-Theist.

There was a time in Australia's history when Catholics were disadvantaged and even discriminated against because of their chosen religion. Religious pluralism and acceptance of the right of people to practice whatever religion they like help to guarantee that no particular religion will be persecuted. Personally, it worries me not whether my son will be a Catholic but whether he will develop a decent value system and live a good life. Crass materialism and the "Greed is Good" credo worry me more than Protestants or Buddhists ever could.

As far as the distinctively Maltese Catholicism is concerned, I hope my son will be interested in it, as I am interested, not necessarily as a personal Faith but as an example of one part of a cultural heritage. It is purely a matter for the individual to decide on religion, in my opinion, but if we are to understand humanity better, it is important to appreciate all the world's religions, and by using the term 'appreciate' I do not mean to imply uncritical acceptance.

(iii) Family

That the family has undergone change in Malta is evident from the sizes of families in the post-war decades. People have far fewer children today than they did in the era before the second and first world wars when eleven children were not uncommon (always with a few dying as babies) and when twenty children was something to brag about. In Malta today, from all accounts, families are smaller and women more inclined to seek equal opportunities with men. Moreover, young people - experiencing a certain economic independence unknown to their grandparents, combined with the lure of an entire social life and consumer market directed exclusively and unrelentlessly at them as teenagers - are more inclined to want independence from their parents early in life. In other words, Malta has been influenced by the grand changes affecting the entire western world over the past forty years, changes that have reshaped relationships in areas that were once regarded as immutable.

My point is this: if the family can change in Malta, how can we expect second and third generation Maltese-Australians to retain the old view of family life as it used to exist in Malta? Is it necessarily a bad thing? The answer to that question depends on one's point of view! It is not my purpose to express an opinion, nor to canvas other opinions, but to emphasize one point, namely: that change has occured is undeniable.

(iv) Pride in Malta

Pride in Malta is something that is not uncommon among the second and third generation, from my experience; but then again I probably only meet those who are interested in Malta anyway. I think there is pride because there is so much to love about Malta but also because there are no strings attached. The Maltese-Australians can and do visit their parents' homeland and can read books and watch TV series about it, without having to adopt changes in life-style or outlook. They can love Malta as Maltese-Australians. Yet sometimes, from what I am told, parents and grandparents attempt to impose a life-style or an outlook that is based on the values they grew up with in Malta; a Malta that, to a large extent, no longer exists as they experienced it.

Pride in Malta is something to be nurtured, something realistic and practical. Yet, if one wants a basic introductory booklet on Maltese culture and Malta today, where does one turn? I know of school teachers who have phoned consular offices and community groups seeking appropriate teaching material about Malta, yet nothing professionally-researched and specifically designed seems to exist.

(v) Maltese History

I would be preaching to the converted in saying that Malta has an ancient, diverse, exciting and amazing history. The period of the Knights and the heroism of the second great seige in the 1940s seem to have particular appeal. Yet, as far as Maltese-Australians are concerned, I have detected - largely through the responses to my own writings - that it is the second and third generation who are the most enthusiastic about the history of the Maltese in Australia. It makes sense when you think about it because they are learning new information about the story of their parents, their grandparents, their great grandparents, etc, in what is really their own country, Australia.

The history of the Maltese in Australia is a tangible expression of the real heritage of the second and third generations because it combines a cultural heritage with the social matrix into which they were born. It is their own history, not just as Australians, but as Australians of Maltese background.

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